LGBT Pride is known for beautiful colours and music in the streets, but its roots are in the revolution against oppressive systems, says
Stonewall — a protest? A riot? A march? Absolutely not. A six-day rebellion that sparked revolutionary change. To understand what began in the early hours of the morning on June 28, 1969, we have to understand the social and political context.
Police raids on known or suspected gay bars were commonplace. Searches required three items of gender-conforming clothing i.e. a male person wearing what was considered ‘men’s clothing’ and a female person wearing ‘women’s clothing’. Butch lesbians, trans people, and anyone not fitting into neat gender binaries were at risk of being arrested and worse. Countless anecdotal accounts of what happened during raids and after arrest are nothing short of vile.
Humiliation, beatings, systematic rape and sexual assault, and unlawful and undocumented detention were, in short, part and parcel of the LGBT experience of the 60s. Though laws regarding serving alcohol to the community were overturned in 1966, being openly homosexual in public (kissing, dancing with a partner of the same sex etc.) was illegal.
The Stonewall Inn, at the time, was run by the mafia in what appeared to be a mutually beneficial engagement. Establishments known to be serving the community had liquor licenses revoked as they were considered to be promoting indecent conduct. However, an adequate monthly bribe to the New York 6th Police Precinct bought protection for the bar — for a time.
Police tip-offs to mafia-run businesses (prior to a raid) offered certain safety to the organised crime families running the clubs and the patrons for whom clubs and bars acted as a safe haven and sanctuary from a cruel and unforgiving society.
On the morning of June 28 there was no tip-off. The police entered Stonewall with a warrant, harassed the patrons, and began arresting staff and ‘cross dressers’. But after life-times of harassment, abuse, rejection, discrimination, and violence the community and local residents had enough. They waited outside the bar as members of the community were manhandled and agitation grew.
Many accounts of the moment the ‘riot’ kicked off describe the assault of a lesbian — namely Stormé DeLarverie, a biracial butch woman who shouted to the crowd “why don’t you guys do something?” and the anger and hurt spilled from the community.
Lesbians, bisexual people, gay men, trans people, and local residents, fed up of witnessing the harassment, fought back. It began with throwing bottles and stones at the police officers but quickly descended into a riot of hundreds of people.
A prominent figure now celebrated in the community as a trailblazing trans activist is Marsha P. Johnson (the P standing for Pay it no mind!). In her own account, Marsha arrived at the riot within an hour of it beginning — the inn was on fire, a community continuously harassed and abused by the police force (and for many, in every other element of their lives) were giving it back.
Accounts vary slightly on what Marsha threw — a brick, a shot glass — but the appreciation and feeling regarding her participation and the activism that would follow for trans people, black people, the community at large is coherent; she was an emblem of civil rights and saying no to injustice.#
It’s important to note that LGBT history is and has been ‘white-washed’ and ‘male-washed’ and — up until recent years — the women, black people, and trans people have been written out of the story.
It’s important that we question our sources of information and understand always the context in which each version of the story is constructed — consider racism, sexism, patriarchy as the LGBT community is as intersectional as communities come.
We are united not by religion or race, not by geographical location or language; our common denominator is otherness in a society that celebrates and reinforces heterosexuality and gender binaries as the optimum and are, therefore, also susceptible to prejudice.
Brenda Howard, otherwise known as the mother of Pride, was a bisexual civil rights and gay rights activist and below accounts for what happened the following year to commemorate Stonewall.
June of 1970 we held the ‘Christopher Street Liberation Day March’. We marched right through the city — from the Stonewall Inn, through 5th Avenue, right up to Central Park.
“There were only a few hundred people at the beginning, but by the time we got to the park there were thousands! We wanted change! Protection from police raids and their brutality’ — the Christopher Street marches marked the birth of Pride as we know it today.”
Orla Egan, author of Queer Republic of Cork, Cork’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Communities, 1970s-1990s says that, since the 1970s, LGBT people in Cork have forged communities, established organisations, set up services, and reached out to others.
“As well as campaigning for LGBT rights and providing services and supports to LGBT people, the LGBT community has played a vital role in movements for social justice [and] working towards social and political change in Ireland,” she said.
She said that, since the 1970s, LGBT people opposed and fought against dominant attitudes “that we were sick, sinners and criminals” and challenged “criminalisation, discrimination, and prejudice and demanded equality and respect”.
Homosexuality was decriminalised in Ireland in 1993 and, by 2015 we, as a nation, through painful and exhaustive means, won the vote for marriage equality. This year, Cork Pride will welcome visitors from all over the country and the world to a week-long festival that will display inclusivity, fun, and celebration but it is also important that we remember where it came from and what we’re celebrating.
LGBT Pride is known for beautiful colours, music in the streets, and a party that marks the highlight of the queer calendar, but its roots are in revolution, rebellion against oppressive systems, and brutality.
We march because we remember the people who came before us who decided it was time enough for change and because we know still that so many of us are not free to exist completely, to love freely without fear.
In more than 70 countries, homosexuality is still illegal and a report from the International Lesbian and Gay Association counts eight countries where homosexuality is today still punishable by death.
But what about here, at home in liberal Ireland? Is it time to pack in our oppression-kicking boots and just enjoy the party? Absolutely not! Ireland still has a long way to go in relation to family status and the rights of children and families headed by same-sex parents. Trans rights are a must for our community’s effort and energy.
Suicide rates and attempts among the trans community are inordinately high and accounts of harassment and violence against LGBT people are far too common for us to take for granted the fruits of our predecessors’ labour. Irish LGBT people continue to face hostility, social rejection, and exclusion. As a community, we have more health problems, higher addiction rates, are more likely to try to take our own lives or self-harm, and are more likely to be homeless.
In the wake of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, let us as a community, as a county, and as a nation stand to attention and effect change. Let’s channel the old energy of street riots and resisting arrest into lobbying for appropriate policy changes, challenging homophobia, biphobia and transphobia and standing up for a fair, equal, and inclusive society that celebrates diversity and inclusion.
Audrey Lorde said “revolution is not a one-time event” – and this rebellion of changing minds and changing hearts is an everyday battle. Be visible, challenge hate and all forms of injustice, and let’s continue the work of revolutionary change.
The night pride took on prejudice... and won
When police raided New York’s Stonewall Inn 50 years ago, the riots that ensued sparked the gay pride revolution, a watershed moment to be celebrated this Sunday, says.
Time has claimed many of the street fighters who rebelled against the police raid of a New York City gay bar 50 years ago, in what has become known as the Stone-wall uprising. Those who remain are still a little astounded at what they did.
Standing outside the Greenwich Village tavern one recent morning, at what is now the Stonewall National Monument, Mark Segal recalled the spirit of 1969, when protests against the war in Vietnam coincided with the African-American, Latino, and women’s rights movements. Gay power was next.
“Standing across the street that night, that little 18-year-old boy who is me, I never thought that I’d be here 50 years later talking about it. We didn’t know it was history. We just ... knew it had changed,” said Segal, now 68, who has been at the forefront of the LGBTQ rights movement ever since.
On June 28, 1969, New York police raided the Stonewall Inn, ostensibly to bust an illegal Mafia-owned establishment selling watered-down liquor without a licence. But police also abused the patrons, as they had done to gay people many times before. Police also suspected the bar’s management was blackmailing wealthy customers by threatening to out them as gay.
“When I stood here in the midst of it all, I remember saying to myself in just an instant: OK, this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life,” Segal said.
On June 6, just weeks before the city was expected to welcome 4m visitors to mark 50 years since the uprising, the New York Police Department apologised for the first time for the raid. New York has been designated the site of World Pride this year and parades around the globe are set for June 30.
It all started 50 years ago with those who were kicked out of the bar and onto Christopher St that night. They gathered near the door, soon to be joined by an unruly crowd. Protesters started throwing coins, then beer cans and bottles, according to David Carter’s meticulous retelling in the 2004 book Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution.
At some point a lobbed cobblestone landed on a patrol car, prompting the police to barricade themselves inside the very bar they had raided. The crowd grew larger, and more restless, hurling bricks, fuel-filled bottles, and garbage cans. Some people tried to light the place on fire, while others battered the plywood window with a parking meter.
Meanwhile, the cops inside feared for their lives and readied their pistols according to Carter’s account, but Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine ordered them to hold fire unless he shot first. The police were shocked, Carter writes, not just by how rapidly the crowd had grown, but that normally acquiescent homosexual people were out in force, shouting: “Gay power!”
“It’s like Rosa Parks when she wouldn’t give up her seat on the bus. You can only push people around for so long,” said Randy Wicker, 81, who was active in gay rights even before Stone-wall.
And once they get a certain sense of self-respect, they say ‘I’m tired of being treated this way’, they resist.
Eventually, the fire department and police riot squad known as the Tactical Patrol Force (TPF) arrived, breaking up the crowd. But there was more rioting and street battles with the TPF the next night, and an atmosphere of more subdued tension lingered in Greenwich Village for a few more days before one final night of outrage. Suddenly, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and other queer people were motivated and organised.
At the time, being gay was virtually illegal and anti-discrimination laws nonexistent, but Greenwich Village was relatively free territory for all: Butch lesbians, drag queens, street queens, transgender women of colour, and of course gay men. The Stonewall Inn welcomed everybody.
“We had lesbians, fag hags, African-Americans. Most of the drag queens were Spanish. It was a very mixed,” said a man who goes only by the name Tree. He recalls dancing in the bar the night of the raid and is now a bartender at the inn.
“But we wouldn’t drink the liquor because we heard what they did to it to fill up the bottles.”
Among the groups born out of Stone-wall was the Gay Liberation Front, which made a statement simply by putting the word gay in its name, said John Knoebel, one of its early activists. Homosexual was in more common usage, and pro-gay advocates were called homophiles.
“‘Gay’ as a word was a new, dynamic radical word to use,” Knoebel said. “We were the first organisation that actually called ourselves gay and that was an offensive word to many people. We were naming ourselves and identifying ourselves and finally out of the closet and open and radical.”